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Pakistan coup rumors: Could the military take over again?

Coup rumors come at a time of great public dissatisfaction with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and growing disenchantment among the military with the US alliance.

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Yet one thing to keep in mind about coups d’etat in Pakistan – and indeed in any country – is that if the military is planning a coup, they generally don’t give warning. When President Nawaz Sharif attempted to replace Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, and to prevent his commercial flight from landing in Karachi, there were certainly tensions between the civilian and military, but nothing in the press suggested that a coup was imminent. Pakistan’s military responded by putting Sharif under arrest, taking over airports and major installations, allowing General Musharraf’s plane to land. They held power for the next eight years.

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At the time, Musharraf’s aides seemed to be as surprised by the coup as the world was. Consider this comment by Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, quoted in the Guardian.

"You can very well understand that this is not something that one expects to happen every day and whatever was done it was a spontaneous reaction, actually by the army, to what actions, and wrong action, Mr Nawaz Sharif had taken," a military spokesman, Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, said.

One imagines that US embassy officials in Islamabad, meeting with a reasonable, moderate man such as Musharraf, would have discounted concerns that he had ambitions of ousting a civilian leader like Nawaz Sharif to impose military rule. As the Monitor's Bob Marquand reported, days after the coup, those who knew Musharraf described him as moderate in his religious beliefs, and progressive in his personal habits. 

"I would call Musharraf a progressive," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a retired officer. "He believes in equality of education among boys and girls. His daughter is an architect married to another architect, and the marriage was not arranged."

US military attaches and diplomats in Islamabad today must keep a running list of who is who within the Pakistani military, and one assumes they also find many of them to be moderate and progressive, if also increasingly upset at the US for what they see as US interference in Pakistan's sovereignty and national interests. Who among them has the kind of personal loyalty of brigade-level officers that Musharraf commanded in his day? Who among them would lead a coup?

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quick to assure reporters on Wednesday that the US has “No concerns and no reason to believe" rumors of an imminent coup in Pakistan. There is no reason to doubt this statement. But with all the ferment in Pakistan’s political environment, it is no assurance that a coup won’t happen.

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